Popular music and politics have exactly one thing in common: they’re about public appetites and tastes. We often treat politics or popular music from mathematical, or geopolitical, perspectives, weighing interests or aggregating needs, in an objective manner. But it is the public which subjectively determines which music is liked, and which politicians are voted for. But sometimes, an objective trend takes some time to give rise to a subjective awareness that realises the possibilities latent in objectivity. Let me give a theoretical example with practical implications: Christopher Lasch’s ‘Culture of Narcissism’.
For Lasch, capitalism gives rise to a culture which undermines old collective ideas of chivalry and honour. This is inevitable, but Lasch wants to resist it, despite not resisting capitalism. The contradiction is plain in current conservative thought, and lacks the link between economy and society that sociologists from Max Weber (a liberal, by contemporary standards) to Emile Durkheim (a conservative) to Karl Marx (a left-wing classical political economist) would not have failed to notice in today’s febrile political environment. Music and politics alike are driven by the economy which underpins our culture and collective political life. This market economy gradually atomises us, turning us into isolated individuals, akin to gods. We view ourselves as such, even though to play a god as a mere human is to become a beast.
Narcissism reigns across the culture — or so it seems. We may cite the Kardashians, as one example, or Kanye West, as another. But there is a distinction between shallow and deep forms of selfishness. One form is concerned merely with appearance; the other with reality. Shallow narcissism treats the self as separate from others; deep narcissism worships the self as an aspect, or microcosm, of the whole. In a sense, deep narcissism is correct — we are gods insofar as we are aspects of ‘God or Nature’, in Spinoza’s famous equation. Shallow narcissism forgets this reasoning, and leans into the conclusion. In a way, deep narcissism is collectivism, while shallow narcissism is individualism.
Either way, narcissism is becoming the sovereign spirit of the age. To resist it is futile. We must join with it, and turn it to a better end than shallowness. We must become like gods, truly. We must not fall prey to the level of beasts. To do so, we must concede something to the beast below. We must accept our animal natures in order to overcome them. In this way, we might pave the way for a reawakening that shakes this system to its core. But we are holding ourselves back from completing this stage of industrial, institutional, and intellectual (re)production. We are holding on to the ghost of premodern unity. But to get beyond modernity to the unity beyond, we must lean into the postmodern urge to disintegrate. We must integrate into the matrix in order to recode it from within, while maintaining an awareness of exactly what we are doing. I would love to pursue every other possible route through this mess. But now these opportunities have run aground, we must accept fate, and move onwards.
The Economist recently described Donald Trump as a ‘black hole’ which has warped American politics from within. The power of the unapologetic narcissist is immense, no matter how unsympathetic their situation. The future of politics is narcissism. The question is: which narcissism is it going to be? Shallow, and banal? Or deep, and enthralling? I know which path I would choose, if I had the choice. I don’t think it would be Trump’s.
Kanye West is a different kind of narcissist, one who truly values a higher goal than himself, as evidenced by his recent religious turn. But there is more to be done in popular music more generally. The turn has already begun. Billie Eilish’s selfless critique of modernity is compelling, but it is too good. We must concede something to the ‘power’ of the beast below.
Some recent songs have been ridiculed for their unapologetic glamour and presentation. Jessy Nelson’s ‘Boyz’ was critiqued for being too sexualised — which strikes me as slightly absurd, given the tendency in popular music since the age of Michael Jackson and Britney Spears towards increasingly attentive approaches to physical relations among people.
Meanwhile, Addison Rae’s ‘Obsessed’ is surely an exaggerated, but by no means inaccurate, portrait of the dialectic between the other-obsessed lover and the self-obsessed beloved. Narcissism is the black hole which keeps the star in orbit. Lose the narcissism, and the empath/narcissist dynamic breaks down. Surely this is a good thing in the personal sphere, where equal relationships are ideal. But in the public sphere of music and politics, as Thomas Hobbes argued, some degree of ‘anchoring’ is needed to keep the system in order. What better an anchor of a galactic system than, indeed, a black hole?
Before a black hole forms, notably, a star goes into supernova. Some describe this in pseudo-psychological terms as an ‘empath supernova’, after someone has been worn down by the narcissistic society around them. This explosion seems like its own form of narcissism — but it is merely a prelude to the real narcissism to come. The longer a star is waiting, the larger the potential explosion and consequent implosion towards black hole status. In the end, as with the universe, the only surviving significant entities will be black holes. Let us not hide from our fate. Let us embrace the future of popular music and politics. Only then, once we embrace the tragic reality of narcissism, will we have a chance to escape from capitalism and create a world for all, where love can reign. First, we must make a counterintuitive leap into the unknown. Are you ready?